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Exploring the Environ: A Spectacular Volcanic Landscape

The region surrounding Clermont-Ferrand is one of France's most geologically distinctive. In 1977, the government designated 382,800 hectares (946,000 acres) as the Parc Naturel Régional des Volcans d'Auvergne. The park contains 186 villages as well as farms with herds of cows and goats that produce the Auvergne's cheeses and charcuterie. Scattered among them are at least 90 extinct volcanic cones (puys), which rise dramatically and eerily above the pine forests.

One of the highest and oldest of these is Puy-de-Dôme (1,440m/4,724 ft. above sea level), a site used for worship since prehistoric times by the Gauls and the Romans. In 1648, Pascal used this mountaintop for his experiments that proved Torricelli's hypothesis about how altitude affects atmospheric pressure. And in 1911, one of the most dramatic events in French aviation occurred at Puy-de-Dôme when Eugène Renaux, with a passenger, flew nonstop from Paris in just over 5 hours, to land precariously on its summit and collect a prize worth 15,200€ in today's currency. From the summit you'll have a panoramic view: On a clear day, you can see as far east as Mont Blanc.

Shuttle buses run from the base to the summit daily 10am to 6pm in July and August, and Saturday and Sunday in May, June, and September 12:30 to 6pm; the fare is 4€ round-trip. You can drive your car to the summit, but be aware that the road has many sharp curves, many steep drop-offs, and lots of potentially lethal hazards, especially when it's mobbed with visitors. If you opt to take your own car on days when the shuttle bus is operating, local authorities will let you do so only between 6pm and 10am the next day. The road and the parking lots remain open through the night. On the way up, you'll pay a toll of 6€ year-round; downhill passage is free. Frankly, unless you really want to see the summit by moonlight, it's better to take one of the shuttle buses. From November to March, the road is closed completely because of snow. Dial tel. 04-73-62-21-46 for more information.

The different areas of the park contain radically dissimilar features. Les Puys (also known as Monts Dômes) are a minichain of 112 extinct volcanoes (some capped with craters, some with rounded peaks) packed densely into an area 4km (2 1/2 miles) wide by 31km (19 miles) long. Each dome is unique: Some were built up by slow extrusions of rock; others were the source of vast lava flows. Those with craters at their summits were the sites of violent explosions whose power contrasted with the region's peace and quiet today. The geological fury that created these hills ended between 5,000 and 6,000 years ago, but the rectangle of extinct volcanoes traces one of the most potentially unstable tectonic areas in France, the San Andreas Fault of the French mainland.

This region is relatively lightly populated, so you may not be aware of the park's boundaries during your explorations. Details about trekking and camping are available from the Parc Naturel Régional des Volcans d'Auvergne, Montlosier, Aydat 63970 (tel. 04-73-65-64-00), 20km (12 miles) southwest of Clermont-Ferrand. You can buy at least half a dozen guidebooks covering specific hikes and walks (2-6 hr. in duration).

Seeing the Sights in Town

Begin your tour in the center of Clermont, the bustling place de Jaude, where you can sample a glass of regional wine at a cafe. Later, walk north on the all-pedestrian rue du 11-Novembre, which branches off from the main plaza. This street leads to the all-pedestrian rue des Gras, the most historic and evocative artery of Clermont.

Most of the appealing buildings are in Vieux-Clermont, whose focal point is place de la Victoire, site of the black-lava Cathédrale Notre-Dame de l'Assomption (tel. 04-73-92-46-61). One of the great churches of central France, it dates to the 13th and 14th centuries. Structural additions were made in the 19th century. Its outstanding feature is the series of stained-glass windows from the 13th and 14th centuries. Admission is free; it's open year-round Monday to Friday 7:30am to noon and 2 to 6pm, Saturday and Sunday 9:30am to noon and 3 to 7:30pm.

After leaving the cathedral, explore the buildings in this neighborhood. In particular, look for the Maison de Savaron, 3 rue des Chaussetiers, constructed in 1513. It's noted for the beauty of its courtyard and its Renaissance vaulting. Today it's a crêperie, Le Quinze-Treize (tel. 04-73-92-37-46), where you can enjoy a meal-size (savory) or dessert-style (sweet) crepe beneath the artfully crafted vaulting. It's open Monday to Friday noon to 3pm and 6:30pm to midnight, Saturday and Sunday noon to midnight.

Several blocks northeast of the cathedral is the finest example of Auvergnat Romanesque architecture, made of lava from volcanic deposits in the region, the Eglise Notre-Dame-du-Port, rue du Port (tel. 04-73-91-32-94). Dating from the 11th and 12th centuries, the church has four radiating chapels and a transept surmounted by an octagonal tower. The crypt holds a 17th-century black Madonna. UNESCO lists the complex as a World Heritage Site. Admission is free; it's open daily from 8am to 7pm (until 8pm June to mid-Oct).

Between the two churches stands the Renaissance Fontaine d'Amboise, place de la Poterne. Its pyramid supports a statue of Hercules. Nearby is square Pascal, commemorating the birth of mathematician Blaise Pascal in 1623 in a house on rue des Gras. Regrettably, the house was demolished in 1958, but a statue stands in honor of the native son.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.